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Differences Among Charcoal Types: Soft, Medium and Hard. Which one is the Best?

Updated: May 7, 2021

No matter how messy it is, charcoal is my favorite medium. I believe you can create contrast so easily with charcoal and make your drawing more realistic! Here in this short article I would like to talk about something that I get a lot of questions about: What are the differences between the charcoal pencils? How should we decide which one to get?

First and foremost, the more binder you get in your compressed charcoal, the harder the pencil will be. HB (Hard), 2B (Medium), 4B (Soft) and a 6B (Extra Soft) are the most commonly used types of charcoal pencils.

The pencils you see in the photo are General's Charcoal and I am really happy about them. I can easily say that they are my favorite supplies together with my Caran d'Ache colored pencil set. From the length of the pencils, you can tell that I don't use the hard one very often.

Let me show you how they look on paper. As you can see below, the softer the charcoal, the darker it is. In the extra soft one, you barely see the the white tooth of the paper. It is almost entirely black. Whereas in hard example you see the paper showing through.

There is also another difference: Soft ones create more charcoal dust then the hard and medium. This makes sense because as I mentioned before, the softer the pencil, the less binder in it, leaving the charcoal dusts free. If you look at the photo below, you will see that extra soft creates even more dust then the soft one. This is why it is a great idea to use soft pencils in much wider areas and draw details more with medium or hard pencils.

In my portrait studies, I usually draw with medium charcoal as it is easy to blend and most of it stays on the paper where I draw the line. Speaking of blending, let's see how they blend when we use a blending stump.

In the photo above you see that although I applied extra soft charcoal in a relatively small area, once we blend, due to the large amount of dust, it was easy to blend it to a much larger area. On the contrary, with hard pencil, the pencil strokes seemed so obvious and it didn't blend much.

So how do they behave if we want to blend let's say, lines? I drew a couple of lines for each type as shown above and I just followed the direction of the line with my blending stump. The result has proven my point that if you want to draw fine details, soft or extra soft pencils shouldn't be our first preference:

While I was looking at my set, I also saw white charcoal and I also wanted to talk to you about that. Of course, white charcoal is not charcoal. They are made of Calcium Carbonate and a binder. There is zero titanium white pigment in these pencils as well as no charcoal in them. But they are great at giving highlights! This is how white charcoal looks on black charcoal:

If you are considering other options, I do my highlights with Tombow mono eraser and white gel pen mostly. In my Patreon and YouTube tutorials, I try to show how these highlights can be used in different ways.

Finally, I would like to show you the differences among charcoal drawing sticks. In my General's Charcoal set, I had 12 of them. The thin sticks are for smaller areas and the big ones are for larger areas. I only use the thin ones here for you.

2B is Medium, 4B is Soft and 6B is extra soft. I tried to draw some zigzags for you so that you can see how they look on paper. As you see they get blacker as they move from 2B to 6B. Also, as you probably have already realized, charcoal shows the texture of the paper more than graphite does. So, if you are uncomfortable with that grainy texture you can either blend it, or use a few layers of charcoal pencils instead of sticks.

So how do they look when they are blended and when they are applied heavily? Here we go:

Just like we saw in the charcoal pencil example, they created more dust as they became softer and blacker. This means that they were easier to blend as their softness increased. Most of the time I prefer 6B for my background work. While blending a pitch black charcoal background (just like my art work below), keep in mind that probably a tissue is not the best blending tool as it is going to pick up half of the charcoal.

Blending stump is a great tool for smaller areas but not so much for larger areas like backgrounds. So I highly recommend using your fingers to blend! Just don't forget to wash your hands with dish soap afterwards! Once I forgot and when I came in to our room to show my work to my boyfriend he laughed so hard telling me that I looked like a combat soldier with that camouflage on my face 🙈

I hope you have found this article helpful! Let's keep in touch in social media!

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Ece Gurler Artist & Author

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